Recently attended the 2018 Jewish Leadership Conference in midtown Manhattan, “Jews and Conservative Politics.”
I was one of few liberals in an assemblage of 800 people. Though not politically conservative — far from it — I was drawn to this conference in no small part by the opportunity to imbibe the scholarly prowess of several of the speakers, but also by the prospect of hearing conservative pundits and lay people discuss and debate the issues of the day from a perspective different from my own. After all, events like conferences, colloquia and symposia typically include an exchange of ideas and constructive debate and criticism; not least of all, I assumed that 800 Jews in a single room would have more than one opinion.
To be sure, the experts did not disappoint. Frankly, I could listen to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Professor Ruth Wisse speak and teach for days on end, and hearing Natan Scharansky talk about his life and career never disappoints. Scholarly expertise transcends political ideology and outlook. The occasional strand of conservative polemic notwithstanding, Soloveichik exploring the mentality of 19th-century American Jews and Wisse talking about the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein addressed broadly the entirety of the America Jewish experience, conservative and otherwise; and Scharansky’s life in the Soviet Union and Israel cannot be pigeon-holed into the framework and worldview of any one political ideology.
In contrast to these masterful presentations, the pundits left my expectation for debate and discourse largely unfulfilled. Instead of conservative thinkers debating the nuances of their convictions, this was a day of self-affirmation, a collective pat on the back. Never mind two Jews, three opinions — this was, quite eerily, 800 Jews with one largely undifferentiated opinion.
The glaring absence of a tapestry of opinions pointed to a larger oddity: a seemingly limited understanding among the majority of those in attendance as to what conservatism means. One got the impression that few in attendance had more than a cursory understanding of the ideas of Sir Edmund Burke, the father of modern political conservatism, let alone had read anything by him.
This was apparent right at the outset, when one of the first speakers paid homage to the “connection to history” as a hallmark of the conservative outlook but proceeded to ignore an obviously and immediately relevant lesson of history.
The conference took place the day after the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; while every person who came to the microphone acknowledged the event and offered heartfelt sympathy, there was no attempt to raise even the possibility of a connection between President Trump’s anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric (and how it is amplified by Fox News and the alt-right) and the fact that the shooter was driven by an anti-Semitism born of the same anti-immigrant xenophobia. There was no attempt to underline the parallel surges of anti-Semitism in an increasingly anti-immigrant, xenophobic America during the 1920s and 1930s and in 2018 — a Burkean opportunity to learn from history recklessly squandered.
The larger impression that emerged from the day was a blurring of the line between conservative and reactionary. The latter is, more often than not, driven mainly by fear — fear of change, fear of a loss of privilege and, above all, fear of an ever-imminent catastrophe.
Conservatism is not an ideology driven by fear, but by caution and, more often than not, cautious progress. Burke, in his career-making criticism of the French Revolution and its leaders, did not reject out of hand their aims. He believed there were aspects of late 18th-century European society and politics that needed to change. His criticism focused on the methods and pace of the French Revolution. He preferred the steady, gradual English march toward Liberalism to the frenetic and abrupt changes in France that had devolved into violence and social upheaval. Yet he was no less critical of the autocratic policies of the Romanov, Habsburg and Hohenzollern dynasties. His conservatism was centrist — right of center, to be sure — and moderate. He opposed radicalism and extremism in all directions.
This Burkean mentality was lost on some of the pundits who spoke at the conference, whose outlook was more a fear-driven reactionary posture than one of Burkean cautious progress. One pundit began by citing (Bibi’s father) Ben Zion Netanyahu’s assertion that “all anti-Semitism is eliminationist anti-Semitism,” as a point of departure to preempt the audience from seeing any form of anti-Semitism as anything other than a prelude to Hitler, Nazism and another Shoah; and, more specifically, to see any criticism of the State of Israel as not only anti-Zionist but also as an “unrecognized” form of eliminationist anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately for this argument, the history of anti-Semitism does not come close to supporting this claim. Historians of anti-Semitism distinguish non-violent, polemical and systemic forms of anti-Semitism from violent, eliminationist forms of anti-Semitism. And to impugn all criticisms of Zionism and the State of Israel as anti-Semitic carelessly overlooks the fact some of the most strident critics of Zionism and the State of Israel were not leftists — assimilated-Jewish or otherwise — but rather Zionists and Israelis.
By this pundit’s argument, Ahad Ha’am’s criticism of Herzl, Ben-Gurion’s criticism of Jabotinsky, Jabotinsky’s criticism of Ben-Gurion and Weitzmann, and the Haredi rejection of the validity of Zionism and the State of Israel are all examples of anti-Zionism and, by extension, anti-Semitism.
The Burkean conservative would approach the problem of anti-Semitism differently; first and foremost, by drawing the historical conclusion that not all expressions of anti-Semitism led inevitably to Hitler and Nazism; and that Jewish responses to anti-Semitism during the last century and a half recognized this distinction and were, for the most part, proportional to the level anti-Semitic intensity.
Natan Sharansky captured this perspective eloquently when, in response to the leading question as to whether American Jews should rush to Israel, answered that Jews should not come to Israel as an escape but rather as a choice — in effect, opting for Burkean cautious optimism over fear-driven reaction.
Professor Howard Lupovitch is associate professor of history and director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University.